Not All Gloom And Doom For The Climate Crisis: Expert Panel At YKA Summit

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The climate crisis has undoubtedly become one of the most urgent crises of our times. Gone are the days when the narrative can stand at taking shorter showers and planting more trees. The need of the hour is to reduce emissions and ensure that the rising global temperature is stabilised.

A chief ask right now, is to ensure that countries around the world, especially the top 15 highest emitters, bring down their carbon emissions to zero. India, which is the third largest emitter has a significant role to play. Where do we stand today and what is the action needed to get to this ideal? A panel of experts from across industries held a critical discussion on the issue at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit last week, leaving us with important takeaways.

The panel was moderated by Jayashree Nandi, Environment Correspondent with the Hindustan Times, with panelists Ridhima Pandey, one of the 16 teenagers who sued 5 governments over their lack of action on climate, Naim Keruwala, Programme Manager, CITIIS (City Investments To Innovate, Integrate and Sustain) under the government’s Smart Cities Initiative, Hitesh Kataria, Manager – Group Sustainability at Mahindra and Tania Devaiah, a climate change campaigner and activist. Here’s what they had to say:

Why Zero Emissions And The Ongoing International Debate

Jayashree Nandi started the panel discussion with a crucial context setting session, speaking about the need for India to become a carbon neutral country ASAP. “In 2020, we’re at a very critical juncture to take action on climate,” she said.

“According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the global mean temperature for the period between January and October 2019 was 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. The past decade has been the warmest on record. In October, global mean sea levels reached their highest in record keeping and greenhouse emissions in the oceans have been increasing, as has the sea surface temperature and the consequent marine heat waves.”

Zero Se Hero Panel at Youth Ki Awaaz Summit

So, why is the global rising temperature such a huge concern? “According to research, if we cross a 2°C rise in temperature, the world is in trouble – it would lead to extreme climate-related disasters,” said Jayashree.“Countries have pledged certain reductions in carbon emissions, but it’s not in sync with what the Paris Agreement.”

What does net zero carbon emissions mean? To keep temperatures from rising and protecting the world from the worst climate impacts, the most crucial step to be taken is to ensure global greenhouse gas (GHG) or carbon emissions not just drop by half,  but need to reach net-zero by mid-century. Net-zero means that not only would we need to stop carbon emissions by reducing our dependency on coal and other fossil fuels, but also by creating carbon sinks through forest restoration and other technologies to remove the existing carbon from the atmosphere.

“This year, 73 countries, led by smaller island countries that haven’t in any way contributed to the historical rise in temperatures, have committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2020,” Jayashree said. “But larger countries, including India, haven’t. We need to figure out how together, 197 countries meet the Paris Agreement goals on emissions to keep the mean temperature rise under 2°C.”

There’s a debate among governments around whether developing countries like India should commit to net-zero emissions at all right now, when they’ve not historically been responsible for rising temperatures. The US, for instance has historically been responsible for the larges emissions and their emissions are on just a marginal decline right now. On the principal of equity, countries are arguing, they should lead the charge towards net zero emissions. “But the US has pulled out of the Paris Agreement,” said Jayashree. “And developed countries such as Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, etc. are not taking concrete steps. This means the BASIC nations – India, China, Brazil – have a huge task at hand and must figure out whether to raise their NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions and commit to net zero.”

The Youth Ki Awaaz In Ensuring Countries Act On Their Commitments

The debate might rest on the principle of equity, but the results of accelerated climate related disasters aren’t going to affect developed countries alone. They’re going to affect the future generations across the world. That’s why Ridhima Pandey, a teenage climate activist, banded together with 15 other teenagers from across the world to sue 5 governments over their lack of action in protecting the future generations. 

“Right now, the older generations, government and politicians are not getting the importance of it,” she said. “I want to make them realise the importance of the environment and how it’s going to affect our future.”

How does she plan to take the movement forward? “There are two things we’re doing to protect our rights: strikes and petitions. India is not a small country and is at great risk of the effects of climate change. We’re trying to run awareness programmes in schools to ensure students are aware of their rights and fight for their protection. This will give our government the direction in which they need to act.” 

The Threats To Marginalised Communities And Need For Collective Action To Hold The Govt. Accountable

The future generations are certainly at great risk from the effects of climate change, but even today, marginalised communities are bearing the brunt of extreme climate change.

“The communities in India that are most as risk, have the least say on such issues,” said Tania Devaiah. “For example, fisherfolk on thousands of kilometres of coasts are directly dependent on fish stock in the oceans. Rising sea temperatures are altering the biochemistry of the fish in the oceans, which means they are not able to reproduce any more. This directly impacts how many fish the fisherfolk can catch – threatening their livelihood.”

“Secondly,” Tania said, “Increasing number of extreme weather events are seen in the coasts as well as on the hinterlands – and have a direct impact on the livelihood, health, safety and security of the people there. I’m not even exaggerating when I say thousands living on India’s coasts will be homeless soon – many parts of our coasts will be submerged!”

Drastic action from the government is, according to Tania, a non-negotiable at this juncture. The lives of future generations, and marginalised communities hangs on the balance. Simply increasing renewables isn’t the answer. Even today, the government is sanctioning more coal extraction, more thermal power plants and reducing the monitoring levels for pollution for these thermal power plants,” she said. We have to be the ones to ask our government the tough questions, because until we do that, they’ll take relatively easier methods of dealing with the crisis.” 

On What The Government And Innovators Need To Learn

Asking the tough questions is one aspect of the issue, but there’s also a need to look at how solutions to reduce carbon dependency are being received by the masses.

“The question is, why are we not adopting sustainable practices en masse? Organic food and recyclables – both are very niche concepts,” said Naim Keruwala. “We are a society that thinks a lot about cost and convenience, and we need to focus on these two aspects – through government policies as well as the private sector and entrepreneurs. while innovating.”

Naim Keruwala at the Zero Se Hero Panel at the YKA Summit

When the cost of energy efficient alternatives is higher than the cost of coal reliant products, the initiatives to reduce dependency on fossil fuels will fail, because people wouldn’t be able to afford it, he said. That’s what governments and innovators must understand.

What’s The Role That Businesses And The Private Sector Can Play?

On the one hand, there is the government action. On the other hand, there’s the private sector, which needs to play a huge role in working with the government on reducing emissions. According to Hitesh Kataria, it’s already off to a positive start.

Hitesh Kataria at the Zero Se Hero Panel at the YKA Summit

“There are two narratives being built currently,” he said. “One, that somebody – God, another country or the government – needs to be blamed for the crisis and twi, that the onus is on me – I need to take action to make a difference. Businesses, luckily, have understood this very well. At the end, we need to say ‘what can I do’?”

According to Hitesh, Mahindra is already imbibing the ‘what can I do’ approach. “When we at Mahindra started looking at our numbers, we asked ourselves why we need to spend so much on energy, and can we actually reduce our dependency on coal and look at alternatives like hydro,” he said. “Corporates need to think in this way that ‘If I am investing in energy efficient initiatives, I’m directly contributing to the bottom line. Secondly, to stay ahead of the curve – if there are regulations that are going to be instituted, why not be ready for it with proactive action?”

The Way Forward

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. The challenges to bringing down carbon to net zero are many, but through collective action from all sectors, there’s a high chance India can meet its targets and how! As Tania succinctly put it “As an individual, I will do my bit, but also play a role in holding the government accountable for its commitments, supporting its initiatives and pushing it to take bold, necessary action where its needed.”

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